Rather than being driven by lack of economic opportunity, some of the most prominent jihadist terrorists over the past decade have been educated members of their societies, with plentiful opportunities open to them.
“Terrorists are not particularly impoverished, uneducated, or afflicted by mental disease,” a RAND Corporation report commissioned by Secretary of Defense stated in 2009. “Terrorist leaders actually tend to come from relatively privileged backgrounds.”
The report said that “root cause factors” do affect terrorism, but do so “indirectly by contributing to an environment.”
A 2002 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research examining links between poverty/low education and participation in terror found that in the cases of both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian suicide bombers, support for violent activities was higher among those more educated and better off.
On the eve of the White House summit on countering what it calls “violent extremism,” Harf’s comment during an MSNBC interview Monday about a need “to go after the root causes that leads people to join these [terrorist] groups, whether it’s a lack of opportunity for jobs …” drew stinging criticism.
She later used her Twitter feed to argue that President George W. Bush, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and “countless others” had spoken of links between terrorism and poverty.
“We will challenge the poverty and hopelessness and lack of education and failed governments that too often allow conditions that terrorists can seize and try to turn to their advantage,” Bush told a U.N. event in 2002.
“Terrorism really flourishes in areas of poverty, despair and hopelessness, where people see no future,” Powell said at the World Economic Forum the same year.
Harf’s position is in line with public statements by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Last October, he said Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terror was not linked to Islam, pointing instead to poverty, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and climate change.
The same month, Kerry spoke at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa about responding to Islamist extremism by providing “better alternatives for a whole bunch of young people who today live in places where they feel oppressed, where they don’t have a lot of opportunity, there’s not enough education, they don’t have jobs.”
Earlier in the year, Kerry blamed poverty for Boko Haram’s bloody jihad in Nigeria.
And in September 2013, he told a meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), a flagship Obama administration initiative, that it was important to provide “more economic opportunities for marginalized youth at risk of recruitment” to terrorist groups, saying “getting this right isn’t just about taking terrorists off the street.”
Yet the GCTF itself has acknowledged that there are questions about the terrorist/poverty link.
“While research has rejected the thesis that poverty begets violent extremism, the gap between the expectations and reality of an individual’s socioeconomic status can be a condition conducive to violent extremism,” says a key GCTF document adopted in 2013.
In a 2013 speech at the National Defense University, President Obama spoke of the need to address “the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism – from North Africa to South Asia.”
He went on to cite poverty, sectarian hatred, political repression and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As early as 2001, Obama was speaking about the “root causes” of terrorism.
A month after 9/11, the then Illinois state senator expressed support for the pending mission in Afghanistan, but also raised concern about “some of the root causes of this terrorist activity.”
“For nations like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, or much of the Middle East, young men have no opportunities,” he told the Chicago Defender. “They see poverty all around them and they are angry by that poverty.”
Those questioning the “root cause” thesis argue that Islamic terrorism is driven by a jihadist ideology, based on interpretations of revered texts beginning with the Qur’an.
Al-Qaeda’s top leadership has been dominated by educated and successful men: Osama bin Laden was the son of a billionaire businessman; Ayman al-Zawahiri is a physician; 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has an engineering degree.
A similar pattern was evident in south-east Asia, where key members of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terror network were well-educated men, according to a 2011 Singapore study.
They included a Malaysian businessman and former army captain who provided lodgings in 2000 for two of the 9/11 hijackers and was later involved in a foiled Singapore bomb plot; a JI bomb expert who was a university lecturer with a doctorate in engineering; a U.S.-trained engineer; and university graduate Noordin Mohammed Top, the Bali bombing mastermind and Indonesia’s most-wanted terrorist until his death in 2009.
“Terrorists turn out to be more rather than less educated than the general population,” wrote Darcy Noricks, one of the authors of the 2009 RAND report, citing a number of academic studies – although he added that “[t]he literature on the role of education still needs some additional work to reach the standard of ‘substantive agreement.’”
“Education can encourage terrorism in several ways,” Noricks went on. “One is that schools may be used simply as convenient recruiting hubs or, in some cases, even as ‘mobilizing structures’ with the right mix of youth, insulation from social control, and opportunities.
“Another is that schools may propagate violent ideology and expand the context in which the use of violence is considered appropriate and desirable.”